Virginia Hanusik’s photographs, now on view at MAS Context, study the front lines of the climate crisis


Virginia Hanusik’s photographs, now on view at MAS Context, study the front lines of the climate crisis

Lake Maurepas (2015)

You can’t see them coming, but you know they are. Maybe you’re still reeling from the last one. Maybe you get anxious now whenever it rains too hard. Maybe you’re living in a house you haven’t received the money to repair. Maybe you haven’t been able to replace your car, which was swept underwater. You know another storm is coming. The last one, the next one—they’re always with you.

What do we call it? This wary climate worry lingers on the Gulf Coast all hurricane season long, stretching from May to November. And it’s impossible for me not to see it—not to feel it, to be honest—just beyond the edges of the photographs that make up Periphery, the Louisiana-based photographer Virginia Hanusik’s current show at MAS Context’s Reading Room in Chicago.

Cameron Parish (2021)

Looking at these photographs, I want to use the word “sublime” the way the Romantics used it. There is obvious, piercing beauty in Hanusik’s compositions—and there is hidden terror in the invisible context. For all the world, the photographs appear calm, but when you’ve lived on the Gulf Coast, that’s no consolation.

Lake St. Catherine, Orleans Parish (2020)
Grand Isle (2020)

You can’t see the climate changing. What you can see are people, here persisting, projecting their lives into the future. Take Cameron Parish, Hanusik’s photograph of a church. The typology of a one-story building with a modest but unmistakable spire—sometimes no different from a pole barn—is recognizable in rural communities all over the country, but here the threat is both hell and high water. The stilts suggest a kind of preparation, a kind of earthliness, a structural recognition of the need both to elevate congregants’ spirits—and, in case of disaster, their bodies.

This persistence is different from resilience, I think. That’s a word often assigned paternalistically to environmental justice communities like Cameron Parish (or St. James or Lake Charles) for making do without many resources other than their own. The parts of the Gulf Coast Hanusik shoots are the ones whose infrastructure is woefully dated and that exist closest to the pollution from the refineries that is making all of this worse. The show, taken as a whole, asserts a separation between the hard infrastructure we build and the landscapes where we spend our lives. Each, here, stands alone, as though it has nothing to do with the other—which is part of the problem, when climate adaptation fails to be specific to the conditions on the ground. Take Route 1 over Leeville, Lafourche Parish, which images the ingenuity it requires to vault a freeway over a bayou but appears simultaneously indifferent to what’s being vaulted over.

Route 1 over Leeville, Lafourche Parish (2020)
Grand Isle (2022)
Isle de Jean Charles (2021)

The seas are rising. The storms keep coming. The recovery never ends, and it is never equal. But one beautiful thing about the Gulf Coast is how much strength you can see. How much will to persist. Whatever tenuousness, whatever vulnerability you might identify in Periphery—the show’s title is a word often assigned to communities living in low-lying coastal areas or in the shadows of refineries and chemical facilities—is coming from somewhere else, brought down on people through no fault of their own, because nearly all of those who have had the opportunity to act have ignored the consequences of more than a century of a polluting, extractive economy. It’s getting hotter. The storms are wilder. The consequences are coming closer, at the edges, now, at the back of your mind, a satellite image swirling at the periphery of your attention until all of a sudden you’re trying to stay standing one more time.

Allyn West is a writer based in Houston and rural Kentucky. You can find them on Twitter @allynwest.

Periphery, an exhibition by New Orleans–based photographer Virginia Hanusik, is on view at the MAS Context Reading Room in Chicago through June 3.